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Audiences enter house of ‘Payne’

'W.' performs on the upper end of expectations

The 20th Century Fox family was feeling no pain as Mark Wahlberg actioner “Max Payne” topped the weekend box office and Fox Searchlight’s “The Secret Life of Bees” buzzed its way to a photo finish with family holdover “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” for second place.

Lionsgate’s high-profile George W. Bush biopic “W.” likewise delivered a solid performance, placing fourth on the strength of liberal moviegoers and Oliver Stone fans.

Enjoying a wide lead, “Max Payne” opened to an estimated $18 million from 3,376 runs.

After that, it was a tight race. Disney’s “Chihuahua” declined just 37% in its third weekend to gross an estimated $11.2 million from 3,239 runs for a cume of $69 million, according to Rentrak. “Bees” grossed an estimated $11.1 million from 1,591 runs for a sweet-as-can-be location average of $6,945—the best of any film on the top 10 chart.

“W.,” toplining Josh Brolin as Bush, debuted to an estimated $10.6 million from 2,030 runs.

Overall, the domestic box office was up by as much as 10% from the same frame last year. Weekend’s solid showing once again proves that the market can expand if there are movies targeting different demos.

The only blemish was Summit Entertainment’s “Sex Drive,” the weekend’s other new wide release. The R-rated teen comedy grossed an estimated $3.6 million from 2,421 runs to come in No. 9.

On the specialty side, both Miramax’s comedy “Happy-Go-Lucky” and Sony Picture Classics’ Anne Hathaway drama “Rachel Getting Married” held well, posting per screen averages of $12,222 and $10,460, respectively. Debut of Barry Levinson’s “What Just Happened?” bowed to only so-so numbers, grossing $216,000 from 36 runs for a per theater average of $6,000.

“Max Payne” scored the third-best opening of the fall after “Chihuahua” ($29.3 million) and DreamWorks/Paramount’s action-thriller “Eagle Eye” ($29.2 million).

Between them, “Max Payne” and “Bees” were a study in gender politics. A full 65% of “Max Payne’s” aud were men — the majority of them younger.

“We’re thrilled. Fox had a great weekend,” Fox senior VP of domestic distribution Bert Livingston said. “We had something for everyone.”

Based on the bestselling book, “Bees” played heavily female, including among African-American women. Cast includes Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson. “Bees” played well across the country.

“It is playing to all ages, and all ethnicities,” Fox co-chief operating officer Steve Gilula said.

Like big Fox, Searchlight was in need of a box office success. Specialty has a strong fall and winter slate, including upcoming titles “The Wrestler” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Heading into the weekend, no one was quite sure how “W.” would play. Some speculated whether the film would be relevant, considering Bush is in the waning days of his presidency. Generally speaking, presidential biopics are made well after someone has left office. That includes Stone’s “JFK” and “Nixon.”

Exit polling showed that the majority of the audience, or nearly 90%, don’t care for Bush, with nearly 80% of the audience saying they intend to vote for Sen. Barack Obama in the prez race, while only a miniscule 6% said they were planning to vote for Sen. John McCain. And 47% of those going to see the movie were over the age of 40.

Among Stone’s films, “W.” marked his fifth-best opening after “World Trade Center” ($18.7 million), “Alexander” ($13.7 million), “Any Given Sunday” ($13.6 million) and “Natural Born Killers” ($11.2 million). “JFK” debuted to $5.2 million from 1,164 runs on its way to grossing $70.4 million domestically, while “Nixon” only cumed $13.7 million.

Stone made “W.” in only four months, so that it could be released before the November presidential election. He said he went to great lengths to accurately portray Bush. Much of the film is flashbacks to Bush’s younger days.

“I think the subject matter was something people wanted to see. We had a great ad campaign, and people responded,” Lionsgate’s prexy of domestic distribution Steve Rothenberg said. “We got to double digits, which is what exactly we wanted.”

“W.” is the latest in a series of politically and culturally charged films to hit the box office as the election nears.

Lionsgate’s Bill Maher docu “Religulous” and Samuel Goldwyn/IDP’s Christian-themed pic “Fireproof” both continued to play well over the weekend among their respective demos.

Delivering a victory to Goldwyn, “Fireproof” jumped the $20 million mark in its fourth weekend, declining only 15% to an estimated $2.67 million from 905 theaters. Film was in a virtual tie for No. 10 with Warner Bros.’ “Nights in Rodanthe,” which declined 41% in its fourth weekend to an estimated $2.68 million from 2,115 theaters for a cume of $36.9 million.

“Religulous” scored a per screen average of $2,695 in its third week as it grossed an estimated $1.5 million from 540 theaters for a cume of $9 million.

Even high school politics came into play at the box office. Docu “Frontrunners,” which follows the student council presidential campaign at Stuyvesant High School in New York, grossed an estimated $7,634 as Oscilloscope opened the film in one theater in Gotham.

Elsewhere at the box office, Warner Bros.’ “Body of Lies” declined 47% in its second frame to an estimated $6.9 million from 2,714 theaters for a cume of $24.5 million. Film came in No. 6.

“Body of Lies” will need good international numbers to help make up for the film’s weak opening in the U.S. and so-so second weekend performance. Film was able to overtake Sony’s horror pic “Quarantine,” which declined 56% in its second sesh to an estimated $6.3 million from 2,463 runs for per-location average of $2, 558. It is typical for horror titles to see bigger drops than other genres of pics.

DreamWorks/Paramount’s “Eagle Eye” beat both “Body of Lies” and “Quarantine,” despite being in its fourth frame. Thriller grossed an estimated $7.3 million from 3,326 runs and jumped the $80 million mark with a cume of $82.3 million.

On the specialty side, “Happy-Go-Lucky” grossed an estimated $110,000 as it expanded to nine theaters for a cume of $219,400 in its second week. “Rachel Getting Married” grossed an estimated $721,754 as it grew its theater count to 69 for a cume of $1.8 million in its third sesh.

Warner Bros.’ “RockNRolla” reported a per screen average of $5,955 as it grossed an estimated $131,000 from 20 runs for a cume of $401,213 in its second frame.

New entries included IFC’s “Filth and Wisdom,” which grossed an estimated $5,149 as it opened in one run.